Dr. Wallace “J” Nichols is a renowned marine biologist, wild water advocate, bestselling author and fun-loving dad. He holds a B.A. degree from DePauw University in Biology and Spanish, an M.E.M. degree in Natural Resource Economics and Policy from Duke University, and a Ph.D. degree in Wildlife Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Arizona. He has authored more than 200 scientific papers, technical reports, book chapters, and popular publications, lectured in more than 30 countries and nearly all 50 states; and appeared in hundreds of print, film, radio, and television media outlets. His book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do examines the remarkable effects of being near the water on our health and well-being.
In this interview, we discuss his book Blue Mind and the many ways being in or near the water can improve physical, mental and emotional health. Enter the giveaway below to win a personalized signed copy of Blue Mind.
Greg: When did you realize that there was something more to water than just hydration and hygiene?
J: I realized at a young age that I was most comfortable in the water or underwater, for a variety of reasons. Most people then would have called me shy; now they would say introverted. I stuttered. So I preferred to be underwater because people didn’t ask you questions, and you didn’t have to answer them.
And that probably is what led me to pursue a career in marine biology, just the emotional and psychological appeal of being near the water. As I did that, I recognized that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but also that there wasn’t a conversation about that aspect of healthy waterways. The conversation was generally about the economic and ecological benefits of lakes, rivers and oceans.
Given my background in ecology economics, I saw that as a missing piece of the story that we were telling about water. Taking that part out resulted in an undervaluing of water in general.
Greg: Going back to when you were a child and started to find some comfort in the water, was there something that jumped out to you as far as being alone in water versus, say, reading a book alone in your room?
J: Yeah. I was an avid reader. I spent a lot of time in libraries and in my room reading. But I found that, in water, there’s more of an escape, more clarity, less distraction. I’ve never described myself as antisocial, but I was drawn to the solitude, peace and privacy of being in the water.
We had a small, vinyl-sided pool in the backyard growing up, and I was in it all the time. I would sit at the bottom of the pool and hold my breath for as long as I could and then get a breath and do it again. Back then, there really wasn’t much of a conversation about freediving, but I did get scuba certified as early as I could. Later, I enjoyed whitewater kayaking and sea kayaking for the same reasons.
Greg: So you’re coming to water and the isolation and separation of water from an introvert’s perspective. Do extroverts seek out water in the same way, or are they looking for something different?
J: There’s probably a universal appeal in terms of the clarity and hearing your own thoughts. Increasingly, the world does not offer solitude and privacy, and that’s hard to find for a lot of people. I would argue there are people—especially younger generations—who have never really experienced solitude or privacy in their lives. Even an extrovert can benefit from hearing himself think.
And even in a small group or in a conversation with one other person, there’s something that happens on the water or near the water or in the water that enhances the experience. If you’re having a social experience and you take it to the water, whether it’s a business meeting or an important conversation with a family member or a romance, there’s an enhancement there. So even if your desire is to not be completely alone, there’s added value in or near the water. And that’s not exclusive to introverts.
Greg: You mentioned an “enhancement” when you’re near the water. Are you talking about a stronger interpersonal connection or a stronger focus on whoever you’re having a relationship with at that moment?
J: Yes. It could be the cliché honeymoon scenario, walking on a beach, but even something as simple as sitting by a fountain in an urban environment offers a sense of privacy because the sound of the water does a great job of masking the human voice. So even though you’re in public, you can hear each other, but people who are just a little further away can’t hear your conversation. The water creates this cone of privacy. And we recognize that in subtle ways, but you don’t hear it said that way often.
I think the sound of the water also creates a sense of intimacy and perhaps the opportunity for a different kind of conversation. There’s a sort of vulnerability. I experienced it as a dad with my teenagers. As they started getting older and started telling me less about their lives, we started spending more time sitting in a hot tub at the end of every day. And they would talk freely about everything that they wouldn’t tell me about on dry land. There’s some amount of opening up, of relaxation, of comfort. It’s a different quality of conversation. If I’m ever asked for a parenting tip, that’s the one that’s come out of my mouth most often. And people are like, “Wow, it’s like magic. It really works.”
Greg: Hearing you talk about the interpersonal benefits of being near the water, I can imagine being on the beach with my wife on our honeymoon, and I can imagine being at a fountain in a city and feeling like it’s a little oasis in the middle of a bustling urban environment. But is there any scientific research that supports these feelings?
J: There has been a growing amount of research since I started working on this. It was a lot of dot-connecting. There is other research that was dancing around the target, so to speak. The majority was on green space, which is what psychologists call plants. So a meadow, a forest, etc. But there wasn’t as much on blue space, or water.
The early green space research is clear about its benefits for emotional well-being, increased happiness, reduced stress, reduced rumination, and it suggested that the therapeutic benefits of green space were better when there was water nearby. But it wasn’t the focus of the research. It was kind of woven in there, and you had to tease it out.
More recently, especially in the last five years, there’s been a ramping up of research on blue space. The more controlled research is being done at places like the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has a whole research division focused on anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress. They use float tanks, which contain hypersaline water at about the same temperature as your body and allow you to just float on your back with no light and no sound. The researchers have found that anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress and depression are improved after spending time in a float tank. In general, it works as well or better than other therapies.
To me, that research is kind of extreme blue mind in that, normally when you’re spending time by water, you’re not removing all visual input or all auditory input. You’re not floating in a very controlled, warm bath. But the research still is useful, because it suggests that floating in an inner tube on a lake at night with my friend also offers some emotional benefit. But in reality, the experiences we each have with water provide some of the strongest evidence. That’s harder to study in the wild. But it’s pretty clear that there’s something happening that’s useful.
I think it also has to do with what the water precludes and takes away. If you’re in the water, chances are you did not bring your laptop or your smartphone. You could argue that taking away the screens and technology and quieting your environment without water would do the same thing. Well, yes, of course. It’s just that the water does it really well. I’ve seen people jogging with a phone in their face. It’s really hard to swim with a phone in your face. It’s really not a good idea to be fully immersed in a hot tub with a phone in your face.
Greg: You’ve touched on a lot of the psychological and emotional benefits of being in or near the water. Are there any others you want to mention?
J: The majority of the work historically has been done on the physical health benefits of water. That includes hydration and hygiene, but also exercise. Especially when you get older and gravity starts to take its toll, exercising in water is supportive and helps with reducing injuries. So swimming or walking laps in a pool come to mind first. But there are a thousand other things you can do in the water for exercise. We’re seeing more and more of the CrossFit model move into the pool, with people bringing various kinds of exercise equipment into the water, including treadmills, exercise bikes, weights, resistance bands, you name it. It’s all been waterproofed and brought into the water.
There’s also an enhancement that happens when you move your body by the water, when you ride your bike on a trail by the beach or go for a run around a lake or a pond. I hear all the time from people how they have a better workout and more enjoyable exercise session when they do it in or near the water.
The University of Exeter Medical School is doing some of the best interdisciplinary “blue mind” science. Their research findings are important, wide-ranging and very useful.
Greg: Is there a difference in benefit between natural bodies of water versus man-made?
J: I would describe it as a continuum and I do try to be ecumenical about water. I have my own preferences and I meet people who have their own preferences and they aren’t the same as mine. For me, I’ll take any kind of water, anytime that I can get it. So if I’m in New York City and I can’t get to the river or the beach, I’ll go over to the YMCA and swim or find a fountain to sit by and be pretty happy with that. But there is a continuum in that a cramped little bathtub isn’t going to be the same thing as standing by the Pacific Ocean.
I would say the quality of the water, the health of the water, matters. The expansiveness seems to play a role. But also, associations and history with the water play a role. So a particular lake in Wisconsin that holds a lot of positive memories may be someone’s extreme blue mind, even though they may find a tropical ocean to be beautiful.
It’s complex when you look at it through the biological lens, but then you look at it through the personal lens or the cultural lens and it gets even more complicated. So I always ask everyone, whether I’m speaking to a large group or sitting next to somebody on an airplane, “What’s your water? What’s the water you first fell in love with? What’s the water you’re in love with today? Who took you there? How did you feel?” And then, back when we used to meet in the same room, I’d ask people to turn to each other and share a short story about your water, whatever water you thought of first, and then listen to the other person’s story. Usually, if you start with that answer, it’s not that hard to explain the concept of blue mind.
If I try to explain it using an example of the water I care about or that makes me the happiest, I may not get as far, but if we start with the water that you’re thinking of, that you wish you could go to right now or really need to go to when you’re super stressed, then it becomes a lot easier to explain the concept.
For some people that body of water could be their shower, could be a bathtub, could be a pool, could be a creek, could be a farm pond. For some people, it’s virtual water, so poetry or photography or a painting or song. Whatever it is, there is no wrong answer. We’re not selling lakes. We’re promoting a sense of well-being that connects us more to water.
Greg: Would you say that proximity to water is also a continuum?
J: That question suggests issues of access and equity. It’s a topic that comes up a lot, and there’s been some pushback. What if you’re not lucky enough to have access to a pool or live on the coast or live near a Great Lake? It turns out that a very large percentage of the world’s population has some amount of proximity to water that they’re underutilizing in this way.
But there are certainly questions of access, equity, privatization and racism. Plus, pollution of waterways precludes access. If the water smells terrible and looks bad, it doesn’t really have the same benefits. But these questions also connect up to the idea that, if you were redesigning the coasts of the oceans and the rivers and lakes to maximize these benefits, you would create a public space near the rivers and around the lakes and along the oceans, and you would back up the private land where people have houses or apartments. Those front row private areas would still be at a premium. They would still be worth more, but they would be behind a public blue space, and that would offer more opportunity for people that lived miles from the water to get there and enjoy it.
The University of Exeter Medical School has probably done the best academic research on this topic. They found measurable increases in happiness in people who move closer to water, taking into account the other factors that may be increasing or decreasing their happiness, such as income or employment. So it’s kind of interesting to see that teased out in the data.
When you learn to swim, three-quarters of the planet become available, which is a pretty cool thing to have happen to you.
Greg: What about people who have a troubled relationship with water, whether they’ve had a traumatic experience in water or they never learned to swim as a child? How can they access that blue mind?
J: You’re describing my mom. She had two what she would describe as near-death experiences around water during her childhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Subsequently, she doesn’t swim and won’t even put her face in the water if she’s in the water. Generally, she just doesn’t want to get into the water. She does enjoy a margarita on the second-floor balcony overlooking the water and would choose that as an activity. Not just the margarita part, but looking at the water. She likes the beach, but she doesn’t want to be in the water.
I was with her and my kids in Hawaii for my parents’ anniversary one year, and my goal was to get in the water with her by the end of our time together there. I had to approach it gently and carefully and slowly. I told her it would just be me and my two daughters and not my brother’s kids, who she didn’t trust to not dunk her. So we planned the moment and went out there and convinced her to float on her back with the three of us supporting her. And we told her we would not dunk her and we would not let any water touch her face.
And I have to say it was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her in my life. At the time, my father’s health was failing (he’s since passed away). He was in a wheelchair, and traveling was stressful. Everything was stressful for her at that moment. Worrying about his health and logistics, and simple things like getting on an airplane were complicated. But she was just floating with her eyes closed on her back in the water.
I recognize how hard it was for her to get to that spot, but also that she’d gone through life unable to enjoy that, and it may have been nice if she had had those opportunities. She was crying about it. My daughter, her granddaughter, said, “Why are you crying, Grandma?” And she said, “I didn’t know how nice this was.”
Some people may have layers of fear, whether because of not learning to swim or being told the water is dangerous. And there are some cultural and racial aspects to this that are passed along in families that are overcomeable. They’re not permanent. Not knowing how to swim is not a permanent condition. And lots of people, later in life, have decided, this is ridiculous, this fear of water or not knowing how to swim, and have tackled it successfully.
And then three-quarters of the planet become available, which is a pretty cool thing to have happen to you.